Sermon on the Mount, The Emmaus View

Cleanliness, a matter of divine opinion. (Version 1.4)

Cleanliness, a matter of divine opinion

Eden’s nature and its loss

Matthew’s first line introduces Jesus as a Messiah like Adam, a perfect image of God, coming to establish a kingdom like Eden. One might have assumed that Eden, having been lost to mankind through Adam’s fall, remained that way, at least until the first century. However, the scriptures portray the repeated demolition of Eden-like places under similar circumstances. These annihilations underline a defining feature of the paradise lost. In the Garden of God, everything should embrace God’s judgements, a characteristic that would express itself through the foundational concept of cleanliness as expressed in the Mosaic law.

The first loss of Eden came when Adam’s disobedience saw him expelled from the garden and his return prevented by Cherubim with a consuming fiery sword that overturned (haphak) (Gen 3:24). Centuries later Lot enjoyed a Jordan valley that was like the garden of the Lord (Gen 13:10), at least until the fiery judgement of brimstone overturned (haphak) the cities of that paradise forever (Gen 19:29), providing a template for the treatment of idolatrous Israelite cities (Deut 13:12-18). To these, Jewish tradition would add that Egypt under Joseph was ‘as the garden of the Lord1’, but met its demise due to Pharaoh’s arrogance.

The prophets envisaged later Edens and their destruction. For Joel an unspecified area of Israel is ‘as the Garden of Eden’ (Joel 2:3, KJV) before being overrun by the fiery cataclysm that engulfs and destroys it. Ezekiel goes further, forging an explicit link between the brimstone of Sodom and Adam’s fate as he prophecies concerning the prince of Tyre. This great leader was ‘in Eden the garden of God’ (Ezek 28:13, KJV), a cherub walking unhurt amidst fiery stones (i.e. brimstone). But his splendour had corrupted his wisdom and he considered himself a god. Therefore, Ezekiel promised, God would cast him out from the Mountain of God to die outside at the hands of foreigners. A cherub would expel him from amidst the stones of fire while fire from God reduced his kingdom to ashes (Ezek 28:1, 9, 16, 18).

Good and bad before the time of Noah

In each Biblical instance where an Eden-like state was lost, it was through failure to accept God’s authority. Thus, the essence of an Eden was the willingness of its occupants to accept the judgements of God.

For Adam, the Genesis 1:1-2:4 creation account revealed God’s purposes at the most elemental of levels2. When there was light amidst darkness, it was, and still is, good. When the heavens separate the waters above from those below, it is good. When the coastlands provide boundaries for the sea and show the location of dry land, it is good3. When plants and trees produce seed and fruit, together with food for animals, it is good. When celestial bodies mark out time and emulate their creator4 (providing light and separating it from darkness), then it is good. When monsters and fish swarm in the sea and winged things fly in the heavens, it is good. When animals reproduce after their kind, it is good. When Mankind rules over the earth, fills it and brings creation into submission (i.e. to ensure that the things described above can happen), then it is good.

A wise ruler warns others to avoid bad things and rewards bad behaviour with bad consequences. Thus, by the time of Noah, God’s judgements in Genesis 3:1-4:26 had added several things that were bad. It was bad not to do what was right, to decide right and wrong yourself or to rising up to kill your brother. Furthermore, the bad consequences of such behaviour were death, enmity with others, lack of fruitfulness, pain and difficulty in childbirth, and having to crawl on your belly.

In Genesis 2, we find it was good for a man and woman to become one flesh. Then, Genesis 3 emphasises that a woman’s desire should be for her husband and his rule should be over her, thereby confirming that adulterous activities were bad.

The heart of the cleanliness rules

The Israeli cleanliness rules appear to be unique amongst the ancient Middle Eastern nations, both in their particulars and in their breadth of scope5. Moreover, at the heart of them lay two ideas, unclean things offend God (Lev 11:43) and the unclean can contaminate by contact (Lev 5:2-3, 7:21, 22:5-6, Num 19:22). Thus, to avoid offending God, Leviticus provides guidance on distinguishing clean from unclean and dealing with contamination.

Scholars tend to suggest that each class of Leviticus’ cleanliness rules addressed a different issue6. For example, they relate dietary rules to camp hygiene or separation from other nations, rules involving ‘leprosy’ and discharges to the quarantining of illness, and those concerning blood or sexual practice to the discouraging of idolatrous worship. Such piecemeal explanations often sound quite plausible, however they obscure the fact that one may trace most of these rules back to those early Genesis judgements.

The Genesis criteria and animal cleanliness

In the past, scholars have suggested criteria such as idolatrous associations, ugliness, disgusting habits or deviation from type as determinants of cleanliness. However, as the scriptures first mention cleanliness when God instructs Noah to take more clean animals than unclean (Gen 7:2), Noah’s traditions apparently provided sufficient guidance to distinguish between the types. A recent suggestion, that the food cleanliness rules derived from the desire to imitate God, provides a neat link back to those earliest Genesis criteria 7.

Leviticus, in keeping with the beliefs of its age, considered that burnt offerings were the ‘food of God’ (Lev 21:6, 22:25, Num 28:24), although the Bible elsewhere clarifies that God has no need for such physical ‘food’ (Ps 50:12-13). The Noah account may also hint at this, for God instructed Noah to take ‘seven sevens’ of each clean animal8. ‘Seven sevens’ was idiomatic for an abundance, however the Hebrew characters translated as ‘seven’, by a different pointing, give a word meaning ‘fullness’ and generally implying sufficiency of food to the point of satiation (as in Isaiah 55:2 and Ezekiel 39:19)9. Furthermore, at the time of Noah’s sacrifice from that ‘abundance’, God granted people the privilege of eating meat, which was tantamount to inviting humanity to dine at the divine banqueting table.

Noah’s post-flood burnt offering established that any clean animal was acceptable ‘food’ for God, whilst suggesting that the unclean animals were not (Gen 8:20). Thus, for a nation that was God’s ‘firstborn son’ and wanted to respect their father’s judgements, it would have been logical to eat only animals of which their Heavenly Father approved (Exod 4:22). For advice on what those animals were, they need look no further than those foundational criteria from Genesis.

In Genesis 1, birds were good when they flew, so the Ostrich was unclean because it refused to do so, all be it quite understandably (Gen 1:20, Deut 14:15). Amongst aquatic life, swarming (i.e. move in large numbers) was good (Gen 1:20, Lev 11:9-10). The readily caught shoal forming species all possess fins and obvious scales, so any fish that did not were unclean. Light was good so animals such as moles, bats and owls that show an affinity for darkness were also unclean (Gen 1:2, Lev 11:17, 19, 29).

Death was bad, so animals that deliberately sought out the dead appear amongst the ranks of the unclean. These include persistent carrion eaters like vultures and flies, along with indiscriminate eaters that take carrion if it is available, such as mice, rats and dogs (Gen 2:16-17, Lev 11:7, 13-19).

There are dietary cleanliness groupings that identify almost all habitually carnivorous birds and mammals as unclean10. Whilst it is certainly true that animals that consume meat tend to cause death, it may be that their tendency to follow Cain’s bad example of rising up against others was sufficient in itself to render them unclean. The anonymous writer of the Letter to Aristeas11, commenting on this issue, made just such a suggestion (Let. Aris. 145-47). Furthermore, Isaiah 11:6-9’s poetic image of an Eden like state (where lions eat straw and children live harmoniously with vipers) places its emphasis on lack of harm rather than lack of killing.

The cleanliness rules display their Genesis roots when they mention ‘crawling on the belly’ as a specific criterion for uncleanliness amongst the ‘swarming things’ (Lev 11:42). Furthermore, several types of animal that undertake this bad activity (such as crocodiles and lizards) were unclean.

Amongst the insects, Moses singled out a narrow range as clean, the Grasshoppers, Locusts and Katydids, a cricket like group (Lev 11:22). As required of good winged creatures, their adults fly and, as required of good animals in general, they reproduce after their kind (Gen 1:21)12. Furthermore, they have no overtly carnivorous or necrophilic tendencies.

The curious matter of cud and hoof

Where it was difficult to differentiate the clearly good from the less than good, the default seems to have been to assume uncleanliness (as with marine life, insects and ‘swarming things’). That general principal of erring on the side of caution probably also lies behind the distinction involving ‘chewing the cud’ and hoof construction in mammals. We first encounter a suggestion of this when God asked Abraham to sacrifice a cow, a goat and a sheep (Gen 15:8). The precedent of Noah’s sacrifice suggests that all were clean and all had cloven hoofs and chewed the cud. If these distinctions were then taken as a pattern for acceptability then mammals that ‘fell short’, such as the camel, pig and hare13, were of uncertain status and therefore unclean.

Whilst on the subject of cud chewing and hoof splitting, there are some intriguing traditions that support the hypothesis that animal cleanliness relates to goodness in God’s eyes. First century Jewish scholars equated chewing the cud with the ability to receive instruction and memorise it. At the same time, they considered that possession of a split hoof denoted a capacity to correctly divide good and evil (Philo, On Husbandry, 30:131-3, Let. Aris., 1:150-153). This was no fleeting fad of interpretation, for from the earlier Maccabean period, The Testament of Asher likens an animal that chews the cud but lacks a split hoof to a man who meets the criteria of the Law and yet behaves in an evil manner (T. Ash. 2:9). Such symbolic associations provide precisely the sort of distinctions that Leviticus draws. The only clean mammals being those capable of accepting instruction (chewing the cud) and correctly discerning how to apply it (splitting the hoof), i.e. those who will do what God wants.

The taint of death

The Law builds upon the Genesis judgement that death is bad as it identifies the dead (human or animal) as unclean and insists that association with them brought contamination (Gen 2:16-17, Num 5:2)14. Thus, where a carcase fell on a utensil connected with food storage or preparation (a pot or a stove), or upon an item intended for consumption, then it became unclean15. Similar logic would account for the declaration that association with mediums and spiritists made one unclean (Lev 19:31).

There was a curious twist when it came to carcases that fell into water supplies (Lev 11:34-35). When they fell into water in pots (i.e. receptacles filled by men), the water became unclean. However, if they fell into springs, wells or cisterns (the Hebrew word can imply either), the water remained clean. The mechanism of sending rainwater and subterranean water upon the earth, by which God filled such receptacles, was the same one that, once placed in overdrive, resulted in Noah’s flood, a flood whose waters set a precedent when, despite the corpses within them, they remain untainted and even cleansed the land (as discussed later in this chapter).

The pain of childbirth

Leviticus 12:2-7 directly attributes the uncleanliness associated with childbirth to the flow of blood involved and, in the ancient east, the bloodshed of childbirth was widely associated with a woman’s monthly flow16. For Israel, both conditions resulted in uncleanliness. Some have suggested that these rules arose through an ancient belief that menstrual blood was a habitat for demons17. However, I prefer to see the Genesis 9:5-6 embargo on shedding blood as their basis. The combination of Genesis 3:16’s portrayal of pain in childbirth as bad, coupled with the blessedness of bearing a male child (Jer 20:15), may explain the shorter period of uncleanliness associated with male children, for they are, on average, smaller and their birth generally involves less discomfort18.

The uncleanliness of a male with a discharge probably belongs with these female flows of blood, for the same sort of ritual was associated with it (Lev 15:2-3). Once again, the shedding of blood may originally have been in view. The suggestion that ‘body’ is here a euphemism from a man’s genitalia need not alter such a conclusion (Lev 15:2-3)19, as a likely cause of such a discharge is urinary schistosomiasis20. Chronic infections could cause bleeding in the bladder, with consequent blood in the urine, and/or blockage of the urethra21.

Assorted ways to waste seed

The Genesis commandment ‘be fruitful and multiply’ appears to provide the basis for the cleanliness rules relating to sexual activity (Gen 1:28). Leviticus’ statement, that a man lying with a woman made them both unclean, was not referring to Genesis 1’s ‘good’ activity of procreation within marriage. Describing the act as ‘lying with’ implied disapproval (Lev 15:18)22. Furthermore, the emphasis on the resultant layer of seed, spread over a surface like Manna23, precludes full intercourse, better fitting the ‘withdrawal’ contraceptive- technique (coitus interruptus)24. Not only did this particular technique go against the spirit of God’s earlier commandment to multiply, help keep adulterous relationships hidden and feature in idolatrous rituals25, it had already attracted divine disapproval through the judgement of Onan (although in that case there were aggravating factors)26.

Sexual activity during a woman’s menstrual period also made both partners unclean (Lev 15:24). As it happens, limiting intercourse to that period was one of the most effective forms of contraception available to ancient peoples.

Any waste of seed transgressed the spirit of the Genesis command. Furthermore, somewhere amongst the semen of Israel lay the seed promised to the Woman. This genetic and spiritual potency was not to be wasted. Thus, sure enough, we find that ‘laying of seed’ that did not involve a partner (such as occurs through nocturnal emissions or masturbation) made a man unclean (Lev 15:16-17)27.

The mark of divine displeasure

The final major section of personal cleanliness rules relate to tsara`ath (‘Leprosy’ in most translations). This malignancy could be confused with a range of other disorders (including Hansen’s Disease, the medical ‘Leprosy’), but unlike any medical complaint, it could affect people, their garments and their homes28.

The first mention of Tsara`ath is as one of the three signs used by Moses to forge a link back to Genesis 3:1-4:16 and warn Pharaoh (Exod 2:1-9). In the first sign, Moses’ rod, a symbol of authority, became a serpent, source of Adam’s curse. In the second, a hand, another symbol of authority, became leprous. In the third, water from the Nile became blood on the ground, source of Cain’s curse. For an Egyptian, the water had the same sort of association with authority as the rod and the hand, for Pharaoh claimed ‘divine’ authority from the fertility god Osiris and the Egyptians believed that Osiris was one with the Nile29. Thus, the first and third warning signs parallel one another, acting as a parenthetical pair of witnesses to the meaning of the tsara`ath and irrevocably linking it with disrespect for God’s judgements.

Tsara`ath appeared as a direct mark of the Lord’s disapproval, as when Miriam spoke against Moses (Num 12:10-12). Thus, Moses cautions the people to be mindful of this sign and to obey the priests teaching (i.e. God’s judgements) so that they will not suffer Miriam’s fate (Deut 24:8-9). Uzziah suffered tsara`ath when he ignored that warning and attempted to offer incense (2 Chr 26:16-20). We also know that willingness to accept God’s judgements (i.e. that the Jorden was more important than the rivers of his homeland) was central to Naaman’s cure (2 Kgs 5:11-14). Furthermore, Elisha registered God’s disapproval of Gehazi’s behaviour by striking the servant with the tsara`ath of Naaman (2 Kgs 5:25-27).

Fit for Eden

Through comparing Leviticus’ guidance on clean and unclean with Genesis’ precedents for good and bad, it becomes clear that cleanliness was a measure of fitness for God’s purpose, against which one might measure potential occupants for Eden. The unclean animal was not some sort of inferior creation, but rather one that was not welcome in the Garden of God, where life was abundant and humanity could safely grow. As in Jesus’ parable of the sower, wasting of seed, shrivelling of shoots and difficulty in bearing fruit had no place in Eden.

The issue of cleanliness is a major driving force behind many significant events in the history of Israel and indeed in the ministry of Jesus, nor did it cease to be an issue with the cross, for it went on to inform the theology of Paul (1 Cor 7:14). Thus, in latter chapters, we shall return to Leviticus’ guidance on how to deal with cleanliness. However for the time being it is sufficient to recognise that it was linked with acceptability to God. As a child of God, an Israelite could remain clean by sharing God’s agenda, choosing life rather than death, feeding only on what their Heavenly Father considered good and seeking to multiply the divine image. Those who did so would be a people fit for Eden.

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1 Polano, The Talmud, 168.

2 Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVP Bible background commentary, Ge 2:14.

3 Based on Isaiah 51:5, Isaiah 60:9 and Job 38:4-11, I believe Genesis 1:9 should be read more along the lines of - 'And God said “Coastline [you must] the waters under the heavens keep in one place, and [you must also] reveal the dry land [to those at sea].”' Such a revelatory function is quite in keeping with the tone of Genesis 1.

4 Gen 1 has the celestial bodies perform two functions attributed to God himself (1:3-4), providing light in darkness (1:15) and separating light from darkness (1:18).

5 Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVP Bible background commentary, Ge 7:4.

6 J. E. Hartley, “Clean and Unclean”, ISBE, 1:718-723; S. Wolstenholme, “Clean and Unclean” DJG, 125-131.

7 Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVP Bible background commentary, Le 11:7.

8 Most translations drop the second seven.

9 Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke, “2231 שָׂבֵַעTWOT (Electronic ed.; Chicago, 1999), 869-70.

10 One can think of the odd marine macro-predator that would technically be clean (e.g. the barracuda) but I am not aware whether Israel had access to supplies of such fish or knew what their diet was.

11 Written some time between 200 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. ,2:85-7.

12 They grow from smaller versions of themselves rather than from a different ‘kind’, i.e. a metamorphosis based lifecycle such as a butterfly kind producing a caterpillar kind that then produces a butterfly kind.

13 Whilst the hare does not ‘chew the cud’ according to our modern understanding the word usually translated ‘chew the cud’ have roots that mean ‘coming up’ and ‘expelling’, a process that precedes chewing of the cud.

14 This applied more widely than just dead ‘swarming things’, as demonstrated by Lev 11:39’s application of similar logic to dead, yet clean, food animals.

15 Thus, seed upon which water had come (i.e. seed that would form part of a meal) was contaminated but seed intended for sowing rather than consumption was not.

16 Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVP Bible background commentary, Lev 12:2.

17 Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVP Bible background commentary, Gen 31:35.

18 Marianne J. Legato et al., Principles of Gender Specific Medicine (Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press, 2004), 5.

19 NET, (First ed.; Dallas, Tex.:Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Lev 15:2 (footnote).

20 Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVP Bible background commentary, Lev 15:15.

21 Richard D. Pearson, "Schistosomiasis," The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library, Home ed., n.p. [cited 7 Jan 2009]. Online:

22 Use of the word (shakab) for both illicit intercourse and the ‘lying down’ that occurs in death reinforces this negative connotation. The scriptures use alternatives like ‘know’ or ‘go in to’ where the author approves of the act. See Victor P. Hamilton, “2381 שָׁכַב, TWOT, 921.

23 This layer (shâkabah), resembled the layer (shâkabah) of Manna, a film coating everything like dew.

24 Penetrative sexual activity climaxing in an ejaculation that intentionally takes place external to the vagina.

25 It is possible to infer the practice of contraception in scriptural contexts for Shâkab, such as undetected adulterous sex (Num 5:13) or illicit sexual activity with a slave that could jeopardise your inheritance (Lev 19:20).

26 Coitus interruptus derives its alternate name of onanism from the Genesis 38:9. Onan’s judgement seems excessive for his crimes until one recalls that his family were dallying with the Canaanite religion, whose temple prostitutes almost certainly practiced some form of contraception. His actions may thus have revealed covert idolatry and it was that which merited death. If Paul’s teaching, that the wife had rights to the husband’s body (1 Cor 7:4), had any basis in antiquity, the joint culpability of both partners becomes explicable, for the practice of such a technique would normally require both partners consent. However, in Tamar’s case, circumstances dictated that she would not have given consent to such an activity.

27 I take as significant both the failure to mention ‘lying with’ or ‘knowing’ a woman, and the juxtaposition of this rule with a rule for semen on clothing or leather.

28 Elaborate procedures sought to prevent accidentally misdiagnose the ill but innocent (Lev 13:1-14:57).

29 Pharaoh Ramses IV alluded to this when he stated of Osiris ‘it is thee who is in my kingship’ (13, André Dollinger, "The Abydos stela of Ramses IV," n.p. [cited 7 Jan 2009]. Online:; Undisclosed, Encyclopædia Britannica ( Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2009). Cited 7 Jan 2009.; Albrecht Oepke,βάπτω, βαπτίζω,” TDNT, 1:533; Plutarch, “Isis and Osiris”, Moralia, 32:180.